With Lovecraft Country well underway and a plethora of secrets yet to be unlocked at the center of this family drama, The Beat spoke with Jurnee Smollett (True Blood) about her soft, brilliant, and bold portrayal of activist Letitia “Leti” Lewis, who has quickly become fans’ MVP of the show!
Smollett shared more about her relationship with showrunner Misha Green, how her grandmother inspired her portrayal of this character, how this show set in the 1950s still mirrors America today, and so much more!
On how her existing professional and personal relationship with showrunner Misha Green helped shaped the character of Letitia “Leti” Lewis in Lovecraft Country, Smollett shared:
“It was pretty valuable in my process because when she and I first worked together on Underground initially, we hated each other. It became a joke on set that any time I was in the scene, we were going to be arguing for twenty minutes before shooting. You know, it’s wild because when I think about that like we had such a bumpy start with each other and it couldn’t be more different now, it’s the complete opposite.”
“But I think with Underground we both were feeling the pressure. There were so many firsts for us both. It was the first time Misha was showrunner and the first time I was the lead of a show so, we wanted to get it right. And through that type of pressure, iron sharpens iron, which sums up our relationship with each other. From that collaboration grew this beautiful relationship but initially, it was tough because we had to learn each other’s love languages.”
“I am so thankful for us overcoming that hurdle, because coming into Lovecraft Country, everything is so fluid now. I know her writing inside and out. She knows my process inside and out, and it’s incredible to be able to work with someone who sees you, gets you ,and vice versa. You know, the collaborative spirit is quite rich with us.”
On what fuels Leti to join the Freeman family on their journey to Ardham and what she learns about herself that fundamentally changes her, Smollett told us:
Leti is this buoyant woman, and she’s got this reputation for being a bit of a tornado and a disrupter when she comes to town. She came back in search of her home, to try and find her tribe, her people. She suffers from this feeling of displacement and desperately wants to find her space is in the world. With Leti, I kept going back to this quote by James Baldwin, when he talks about the great shock that happens to black Americans when we discover that this country, which is our birthright, which we owe our identity to, has not evolved a place for us. So, she’s in this pattern of sabotaging relationships in her life and pushing people away. And then comes Atticus (Jonathan Majors, White Boy Rick) and there’s a trauma bond that they experience together. They become soul-tied through a secret, which is a theme often explored in Lovecraft’s work, family secrets.”
“One of the things I loved about playing Leti was this idea that we had to lean in and inspect her contradictions, and really explore that. My grandmother was a big influence for me in approaching the foundation of Leti. My grandmother was a beauty queen. She was the first black Miss Galveston, Texas, and raised four children as a single mom. I never met my grandmother, but I grew up hearing stories about the dignity she maintained throughout her life. This woman would go to work every single day and clean the white folks’ homes, but she looked damn good doing it. She would press out her dress and do her hair makeup every single morning. Her rebellion was that despite society trying to erase her, she was going to walk around with dignity and pride and not allow the erasure of her to exist. So, those were some of the themes that we explored with Leti. And this idea of displacement and rebirth is something that will come back towards the end of the season and it’s a theme that will reoccur with her.”
On the contradictions of Leti in a genre that hasn’t always allowed Black women to be explored in this way, Smollett said:
“For one, one thing that was important to Misha and I in the portrayal of Leti was to show that no one is strong all the time. As black women sometimes, that in the narrative can be a trap, because It doesn’t benefit or serve us, and it doesn’t leave room for us to be vulnerable in real life. Everyone always expects us to be strong and that’s just not true.”
“With Leti, it was very important to explore her vulnerability, her fears, this lineage of the trauma she’s inherited, and to explore what it’s like when someone is habitually abandoned by their mother, another black woman. We wanted to explore why Leti wants to deny and rebel against everything, particularly the most important black woman in her life, even though she’s so much like her.”
“These stories that we’re telling, they’re very personal, and there’s a danger when the truth is distorted. It is dangerous when we only tell one side of someone and I think with Leti, we wanted to show her flaws. We wanted to show that we as women are full living, breathing flesh and blood beings who do very questionable things sometimes for reasons we justify in our minds to be good. We can disrupt shit, we seek joy, and that’s in itself is a very radical act. Leti’s seeking to be liberated and to reject the feminine that as it was defined in 1955. She’s fighting the patriarchy and white supremacy, and the patriarchy benefits from white supremacy and vice versa. So, it just wouldn’t have served us if we would have only played one side of the coin.”
On how Leti’s familiarity with and love of science fiction (sci-fi) helps her come to terms with everything happening on this journey with her and Tic in real life, Smollett shared:
“What happens with education, particularly when you explore other worlds like sci-fi, is it opens up your imagination. And this as Leti’s foundation is what drives her rebellion and turns her into a dreamer. She’s able to see things outside of what they currently are and being a part of the “South Side science fiction club” as a kid helped her dream, helped her see the world in a bigger way.”
“She’s also traveled outside of the south side of Chicago. She’s traveled all over America and she’s a bit of a wanderer so, that also opens up her mind. She’s seen other parts of the country that are ugly, but also beautiful and very much so in an era when the erasure of black folks was so prevalent, she picks up a camera like Gordon Parks because she just wants to document her curiosities. Those aspects of her life inform certain decisions. They inform her rebellion, her disruption, and her radical approach to things. You know, instead of leaning away from her shadow, she leans into it in a very bold and audacious way that arguably she could have only have done because she is a dreamer.”
On the relevant issues in Lovecraft Country that still resonate today and some of the scenes that stood out, Smollett told us:
“You know, without giving too much away, by the end of this season, I think Lovecraft Country will have successfully deconstructed this classic genre and flipped it on its head by reimagining it in such a bold and radical way. So, it’s hard for me to pick one scene because it’s a collection of scenes, and the way Misha has planned out the season, it builds into something pretty bold.”
“The show is a very ancestral story and it’s a story in which our heroes go on a quest to bring down white supremacy. The thing about the systemic racism that this nation has been built upon is that It’s not one target, so I can’t pick one scene, because it’s not just the racist cop that pulls you over and it’s a danger to drive while black. It’s not just going and trying to apply as a black woman to a department store. It’s not just trying to pioneer into an all-white neighborhood and dealing with the harassment and the oppression that comes along with pursuing your place in the world.”
“I think what Lovecraft Country so brilliantly explores is how complex racism is as a system. How the systemic racism that’s built into the fabric of our nation, taps you from all fronts. You never really know where it’s coming from and that’s the terror of it. You don’t know the source. You could be walking down the street just minding your business and it comes at you.”
“So, there are many scenes throughout the show that depicts what we as a nation are experiencing now because it’s very timely. Unfortunately, the themes explored in Lovecraft Country, we’re still reckoning with now. Emmett Till is Trayvon Martin, we’re walking in circles as a nation. But I will say that I am very encouraged because I love creating protest art, but also Lovecraft Country is just good entertainment. It’s a family drama about some regular Black folks in pursuit of protecting our families and our joy.”
Lovecraft Country airs on Sundays at 9 pm EST only on HBO!